A long time ago, in a blog far, far away, I started a series of game design articles discussing alea’s Treasure Chest. I kicked things off by looking at Louis XIV and San Juan and planned to cover all of the expansions in time.
But, I’ve found it hard to get the expansions to the table. Old alea games can be a bit of a hard-sell all on their own (mainly because they’re old; shockingly, not even Puerto Rico is seen much locally, nowadays), but introducing new complexities to players who may not know the game can be even more difficult.
Fortunately, this last Thursday I had a specific request for Witch’s Brew with the Treasur eChest expansions. Not everyone knew the game (or knew it well), but everyone went gamely along. So here’s what I thought:
The expansion to Witch’s Brew contains no less than four supplements for the game: ravens, a sixth player, amulets, and magical abilities. The last two are actually the important expansions.
The Ravens. In the original game, you had to watch for ravens on the various cauldrons and potions shelves. When four of them were claimed, the game was over. But sometimes players flipped the raven cards over, and the ravens were generally dark enough that it was easy to miss them. The supplement instead offers four cardboard ravens that you can put out or put away as the ravens appear.
Effect. Minor. This is just a different book-keeping device — but a useful one as it’s harder to forget about the cardboard figures, and it puts more focus on the raven rule.
Game Design. This shows off how easy it is to modify a physical component to offer an improved effect on the game. I heartily point designers toward this lesson.
Because of their advantages, I think the ravens should be used in every game.
The Sixth Player. There are components (mostly, a deck of role cards) for a sixth player. If you have six players, you play to six ravens instead of four. Some additional cauldrons and shelves make each pile of cards one deeper.
Effect. Probably Light. We only had five players, so we didn’t test this. Clearly, it’ll make the game a fair amount longer, as there’s more people calling out each turn and you’re playing to more ravens. Being able to succeed at taking the prime action for a role will clearly also be harder.
Game Design. I always look suspiciously at game supplements that add an extra player. I think The Settlers of Catan offers a great example of why not to do that (they just make the game too long, IMO) while Race for the Galaxy offers a rare example of it being fine (because of the simultaneous action). I’d personally be suspicious of a sixth player even in a fast-moving game like Witch’s Brew where you get to respond on each player’s turn. Still, with its focus as a social game, I understand why the designer thought this might be a valuable addition.
As to whether to use this expansion: I have no opinion as it largely depends on group size and group dynamics. Personally, I prefer to play two 3-player games when I have six players.
With that said, we’re now getting to the guts of the expansion.
The Amulets. Each players gets 1-3 amulets depending on the number of players. If you are the player who initially announced a role for the round, and you lost it to another player, you can player your amulet at the end of the round to instead take the prime role yourself. You can do this once for each amulet you have, but no more than once per set.
Effect. Light-Medium. Several times over the course of the game, players will get to win a role that they’d otherwise have lost.
Game Design. I suspect that the prime purpose of this new rule is to give players a little more control over their destiny. If a player is forced to lead a role that’s very important to him — or if he’s stuck in a cycle of playing first &mash; he can guarantee that he gets to take the prime action of his role, though just once or twice a game. This also allows for some additional strategy.
Somewhat interestingly this expansion also introduces uncertainly to follow-up players. Previously, the last player in a round could grab the prime role with impunity. The only thing he had to lose was having to lead the next round. Now, there’s a small possibility that you might lose out anyway, and that creates an interesting new decision point in almost every round of the game (though one that can be considered pretty quickly).
Overall, I think the amulets are a win-win and I suggest using them in any game of Witch’s Brew.
The Magical Abilities. This is a deck of 17 cards. Each set, they’re drafted, so that each player gets 1 card from a set of 3. The cards themselves have various powerful abilities from gain-two-extra-role-cards-this-set to you-don’t-have-to-pay-any-gold-this-set. Some of the effects are instantaneous and some are continuous over the set.
Effect. Medium. Each of these cards can be a pretty big advantage for the player over the course of the set.
Game Design. As with the amulets, it feels like the intent of these was to give a player more contro. Even moreso than the amulets, they definitely drive strategy as well. For example, if you draw the ability that means you don’t have to pay gold, you might go heavy on the roles that depend on gold that round.
For better or for worse, these abilities can also break the groupthink of a game of Witch’s Brew. Without them, people are likely to be creating ingredients or brewing potions based solely on their own resources and what they think everyone else will do. However, with them players might take more outlandish play paths suggested by their own magical ability. We couldn’t decide if this undercut Witch’s Brew’s biggest strength or if it shook things up in a nice way. (I thought the latter.)
My one complaint about the magical abilities is that they aren’t all equally useful every round. I saw some used to brilliant effect and some sit almost entirely unused. I suppose the draft is supposed to offset this …
Unlike the rest of these game elements, I wouldn’t suggest using the magical abilities in a game with mostly new players, as they’ll just add confusion and chaos that a new player doesn’t need. More experienced players may feel like these abilities are chaotic enough that they harm the “purity” of Witch’s Brew … or they may enjoy the variability they introduce.
Overall, the alea Treasure Chest offers some nice polish for Witch’s Brew in its amulets and ravens. However, the biggest addition is the magical ability deck, for which Your Mileage May Vary.
Around the Corner
I’ve got a few things intended for the immediate future, including a deckbuilding look at Penny Arcade, a premiere deckbuilding interview, a long-delayed follow-up to my co-op articles, and a look at new-to-me games for Q1 & Q2 of 2012.
I encourage you to subscribe to either the RSS or the email on my main page so that you can hear about these new articles as they appear. You’ll also get word on my reprints, which I’m slowly restocking the site with (and which also appear in a listing to the right of the main page).